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When Humans Started Creating Art: Prehistoric Cave 'Artists'

Ancient art and architecture are not only for historians but for people like us who’ve always been interested in periodic art and crafts.

Prehistoric art: cave drawings of early symbols and archetypes.

Prehistoric art: cave drawings of early symbols and archetypes.

Prehistoric Art: When and Where Was It Made?

Recent archaeological discoveries appear to confirm that prehistoric cave art began between 290,000 BC and 700,000 BC, a period known as the Lower Palaeolithic Era.

The inhabitants at the time, the Cro-Magnon people (early homo-sapiens), were the first civilized ancestors of the modern European. They apparently made their entry into Europe from Africa or Asia, through a slow and extended migration that probably spanned over thousands of years.

These were the times most of us know as the Stone Age, but the Stone Age consisted of three different periods:

  1. Palaeolithic period
  2. Mesolithic period
  3. Neolithic period

Stone Age art, also known as prehistoric art, refers to any ‘work of art’ created during these eras and include artworks like cave paintings, rock carvings and engravings, crude miniature carvings, and prehistoric artistic expressions like cupules, which represent one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of prehistoric art forms. The cultural significance of cupules still remains a mystery.

Most prehistoric art in the form of cave paintings and miniature carvings have been discovered mainly in Europe.

The Main Forms of Prehistoric Cave Art

The inhabitants created their art in all types of rock surfaces—in caves, rock shelters, and cliffs. The core form of prehistoric art is stone, rock art, and cave art and includes:

  • Petroglyphs – Prehistoric rock carvings and engravings as can be found in the Blombos cave engravings.
  • Eggshell engravings – Crosshatching patterns scratched on Ostrich eggshells.
  • Rock engravings – Rock engravings in abstract signs and circle symbols.
  • Pictographs – Cave murals developed in form of sketches, hand stencils, handprints, or painted signs, and geometric symbols.
  • Megaliths – Strategic arrangements of standing rocks or stones as can be found at Stonehenge or Newgrange.

Prehistoric man’s sketches were made with rudimentary hand tools carved by them. Line drawings were bold, and sketches were painted with roots and plants extracts. Their art adorned their dwellings, the cave walls and ceilings.

The skills they possessed must have demanded some form of rudimentary training and high mental concentration.

Picture Paintings in Prehistoric Caves

The earliest humans’ drawings were basically an outline of their chosen subjects and were devoid of any details or niceties. Later, simple perspectives and foreshortening (drawings that appeared shorter than reality to create a 3-dimensional effect) evolved, and there is even some evidence of compositions of form groupings showing, for example, a group or herd of animals 'on the move'.

Archaeologists also discovered un-decipherable motifs, which many scholars of art history believe may have been the caveman's attempt at hieroglyphic (symbols) inscriptions.


Drawings and sketches were representations of plants, animals, human form, and the human anatomy in a variety of figurative and abstract images. Pictures mostly represent hunting scenes of bison, horses, reindeer, cattle, aurochs, and mammoths.

Other creatures drawn and painted in prehistoric caves were lions, ox, wolves, foxes, hare, seals, fish, birds and reptiles. However, there are no landscape paintings, neither were there any elements of nature like rivers, waterfalls, and mountains. Perhaps because of the skills required for painting landscape themes.

Researchers from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island “have identified more than 20 signs, all painted in the same style, that appear time and again in different shelters". These are created with simple brushstrokes in shapes like circles, semi-circles, triangles and straight lines.

Other forms of cave art drawings include crosshatches, cruciform, flabelliform, cordiform, ovals, penniform, positive and negative hands, quadrangles, scalariform, serpentiform, spirals, and zigzags.

Colour pigments were sourced locally by Stone Age painters and were mostly sourced from minerals like kaolin, iron oxide, manganese, and limestone, plants, and roots found in the earth. Several combinations of these pigments were mixed to create their desired colours. For instance, clay ochre provided them with three basic colours—varieties of red, brown, and yellow. The caveman got his black paint from either charcoal or manganese dioxide and red from iron oxide.

What Painting Tools and Methods Did Stone Age Artists Use?

All prehistoric artists used a variety of painting methods to create their art. Initially, their fingers and palms served as painting tools. Eventually, they switched to using moss, animal hair, and vegetable fibres.

They ‘spray-painted’ blowing pigments through reeds and hollowed animal (birds or small animals) bones. The caveman also used foreshortening and chiaroscuro (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) techniques.

The Advancement of Prehistoric Artists

As their society became advanced, prehistoric cave ‘artists’ began to create a series of extraordinary paintings of animals, hunting scenes and other graphic illustrations of their everyday life.

Prehistoric artworks, as indicated by the discoveries of their creations, can be aptly described as preceding history, or prehistory. It has been suggested that art creations of the caveman may have commenced during a period of thousands of years, while man evolved from the animal state to the human state.

This has sparked the belief that the expression of creativity is instinctive in humans, and therefore the origin of the art of 'interior design' goes way back to the dawn of human civilization, and therefore is an integral part of human needs.

And even though the discoveries of the early man have been found mostly in Europe, there is the probability that human existence and development was happening at the same time in regions like Africa, Asia, and probably in the Americas.

History did not 'begin' until men had the ability to record events in some sort of written or symbolic form, but the prehistoric man lived and flourished thousands of years before any form of art history was documented.

What is certain is that the earliest decipherable inscriptions of history do not pre-date the prehistoric cave art era of the 37th century B.C.


Interior Design and Decoration by Sherrill Whiton

Encyclopaedia of Stone Age Art

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 artsofthetimes


artsofthetimes (author) on December 21, 2011:

Thank you so much Jenubouka, i appreciate your nice comments.

Wishing you a merry Christmas and a wonderful new year.


jenubouka on December 13, 2011:

I love the simplicity of the drawings, and yet they also offer a complexity at the same time with their lines and the restricted mediums at hand.

It is inspiring to view these and think about our ancestor's way of life, what they enjoyed, and how they expressed themselves.

Thank you, okay, now this is my favorite piece, (for now)

artsofthetimes (author) on December 12, 2011:

That is so interesting WH I wonder how old those would be. Must go and read up on that. Thanks for sharing the information.

And thanks for the visit.


WesternHistory from California on December 11, 2011:

Thanks for an interesting hub. In the American west there are quite a few sites where Native Americans created petroglyphs in caves and on the sides of cliffs. Two good sites in New Mexico are the Petroglyph National Monument on the west side of Albuquerque and at Bandelier National Monument northwest of Santa Fe and just a few miles south of Los Alamos.